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Jog your memory

As long as she's exercising her body, Nancy Mason figures she should exercise her mind, too.

A class in mental aerobics follows Mason's low-impact aerobics session Monday mornings at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford. It's a convenient opportunity for the 77-year-old Medford resident to fire up her neurons and flex her gray matter in a bid to improve her memory and retain cognitive function.

"If you don't exercise it, it'll go away," says Mason. "Why not exercise what I've got left?"

Mason hasn't missed an hour of "Jog Your Memory" since it started in September at the YMCA. Club membership is not required to attend.

Certified geriatric wellness instructor Libby Watts teaches similar, free classes for older adults at other locations around Jackson and Josephine counties. While younger adults with brain injuries occasionally join in, the program is not appropriate for dementia patients, says Watts.

"It's meant for people who want to maintain and improve."

Care Source Mid Rogue Health Plan, a Medicare Advantage provider based in Grants Pass, funds the program. Watts obtained certification in 2003 from Salem-based Northwest Rehabilitation Associates' Geriatric Wellness Center. Visiting her grandmother in a Grants Pass care facility inspired Watts — a former horse trainer with a psychology degree — to learn more about mentally engaging the elderly.

"It helps tremendously. I can't believe how much it helps me, says the 62-year-old Grants Pass resident. "Making up the puzzles is just as hard as doing them."

Most classroom activities involve "executive functions" governed by the brain's frontal lobe, says Watts. Participants practice organizing, planning, focusing, multitasking and even inhibiting the urge to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, she says.

While an early study of "MemAerobics" showed actual and perceived improvements in participants' memory, it also alleviated depression and loneliness in seniors, says Watts. Several have attended "Jog Your Memory" classes for more than five years at the Grants Pass Family YMCA, says Watts.

"They really get kind of devoted to it."

After instituting the program in Grants Pass, Watts brought "Jog Your Memory" in May to the Medford Senior Center, where about 15 people regularly participate at 1 p.m. Thursdays. Rogue Valley Family YMCA's class is the newest — along with Rogue River Community Center's — and the smallest with just a few, very enthusiastic participants.

"I like the challenges that she brings," says Patty Williams. "I look forward to it."

The 65-year-old Medford resident says she appreciates not only the variety of trivia, puzzles and word-association games that make up each class but also Watts' explanation of how different parts of the brain tackle those tasks. The instructor also incorporates information on nutrition to support cognition and medications that can impair it.

"Most of all, it's a nonthreatening situation for people who feel like they were through with tests," says Mason. "It's a real trick to lift up those people without making them feel condescended to.

"Sometimes it's frustrating, and sometimes it's embarrassing," she says of age-related memory loss.

Mason is quick to reiterate Watts' motto: The benefit isn't in getting the right answers but in brainstorming to come up with them.

"It's all a matter of small increments," says Mason, likening the process of improving memory to weight lifting with 5 pounds to work up to 20 pounds or more.

And now that she's made "Jog Your Memory" part of her weekly routine, Mason can't help but stretch her cerebrum by composing rhyming word-association riddles when class isn't in session. More than a week later, Williams still chuckled over one in particular: "gelatinous abdomen."

Think "jelly belly."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

Patty Williams, left, and Nancy Mason participate in a word-puzzle game at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA Monday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch